The latest in the failed Bridgeport bank trial, City Council elections and more in your Chicago news roundup

Today’s update is a 5-minute read that will brief you on the day’s biggest stories.

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Robert M. Kowalski walking in to the Dirksen Federal Building on March 4.

Attorney Robert M. Kowalski, who gave his own opening statement as his embezzlement trial began Tuesday in federal court in Chicago in the long-running investigation of Bridgeport’s failed Washington Federal Bank for Savings.

Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times file

Good afternoon. Here’s the latest news you need to know in Chicago. It’s about a five-minute read that will brief you on today’s biggest stories.

— Matt Moore (@MattKenMoore)

This afternoon will be cloudy with a high near 55 degrees. Expect some showers tonight with a low near 44 degrees. Tomorrow will be partly sunny with a high near 51.

Top story

Dead CEO of failed Bridgeport bank in the spotlight as embezzlement trial begins

John F. Gembara, the late president and CEO of a failed Bridgeport bank who was found dead in a customer’s bedroom five years ago, took center stage today as federal prosecutors described an elaborate embezzlement scheme they said caused the shutdown of Washington Federal Bank for Savings.

That was the picture they painted as they laid out their case against Gembara’s longtime friend Robert M. Kowalski, a lawyer, real estate developer and Washington Federal borrower who is on trial on charges that accuse him of stealing $8 million from the bank, a tiny but politically well-connected operation that had 30 employees who oversaw 400 loans.

Kowalski “worked with the bank president to get money and property from the bank,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Jeremy Daniel told jurors during opening statements of Kowalski’s trial at the Dirksen Federal Building. “He didn’t sign any notes. He didn’t make any promises to repay.

“The case is about the defendant’s pockets and how he lined them,” Daniel told the jury. “You will see emails where the defendant kept John Gembara apprised of the embezzlement.”

He said the scheme included 13 vacant lots on Fulton Street between Halsted and Green streets that Kowalski bought for $1.7 million nearly 20 years ago, shortly before the Fulton Market District became one of Chicago’s hottest neighborhoods for developers, Daniel said. Kowalski later lost that land in a foreclosure lawsuit. Daniel also told jurors Kowalski would call homeowners who had fallen behind on mortgages they got from Gembara’s bank. To avoid foreclosure, he said some of them agreed to settle their loans by surrendering their homes to the bank, a process known as deed in lieu of foreclosure.

But the prosecutor said the homeowners weren’t aware that their mortgages were never closed by Gembara, who instead allowed their homes to be transferred into a land trust controlled by Kowalski, not Washington Federal, which authorities didn’t discover until federal regulators ordered the bank closed in December 2017 over what they have described as a massive fraud scheme. Some of those homeowners didn’t know that their mortgages remained on the books until they were contacted by banking regulators after Washington Federal was closed.

In his own opening statement, Kowalski, 60, who is defending himself, laid the blame for the bank’s collapse on Gembara and Boguslaw Kasprowicz, a developer who has pleaded guilty to embezzlement charges, could testify for the prosecution and, according to Kowalski hid cash in the Cayman Islands.

Our Tim Novak has more on Kowaslki’s trial here.

More news you need

Elections 2023

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Patricia Walsh, 71, of Lincoln Park, receives her “I Voted!” sticker after early voting in the Feb. 28 municipal election at the Lincoln Park Branch Library yesterday.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Early voting sites open citywide

Voters choosing to mail in their ballots are driving record early returns in the city’s Feb. 28 municipal election.

The leap in vote-by-mail ballots could push overall turnout past 40%, which the city hasn’t seen in a municipal election in over a decade.

The Chicago Board of Elections announced the record early turnout yesterday as early voting sites opened in all of the city’s 50 wards.

Be sure to check out this handy feature, as part of our voter guide, that lets you explore your ballot.

The mayor’s race

Brandon Johnson was the main target of attacks at a mayoral candidates forum last night on issues affecting the city’s Black community, but the Cook County commissioner said the pile-on showed he was now the front-runner in the race.

All nine candidates participated in the forum — the last before the Feb. 28 election — which was hosted by NBC5. Candidates answered questions on topics such as housing, public safety, education, community investment and public transit. But Johnson was repeatedly called out by two of his opponents: activist Ja’Mal Green and incumbent Mayor Lori Lightfoot. At one point, moderator Brooks said to Johnson, “Everybody seems to be piling on to you.”

Our Emmanuel Camarillo has more on how the debate went down here.

City Council races

Two South Side aldermanic races — in the 8th and 9th Wards — feature contests that aim to unseat longtime incumbents.

Ald. Michelle Harris (8th), 61, said for 16 years she has invested in both children and seniors in her community with parks and schools in her ward. But her challengers, Linda Hudson and Sean Flynn, point to empty and boarded-up storefronts dotting a once-bustling 87th street in Calumet Heights as signs that transformation is taking too long.

Nearby, 9th Ward Ald. Anthony Beale, 55, one of the longest-serving members of the City Council, touts a string of developments as markers of revitalization. Challenger Cleopatra Draper, 35, said the investments Beale touts have been for select precincts — ones that are not a majority Black, like the rest of the ward.

Our Mariah Rush has more on the 8th and 9th Ward races here.

As it is in the rest of Chicago, crime is a key issue in a pair of Northwest Side wards facing new leadership after a pair of veteran members of the City Council announced they would be retiring.

But candidates angling for fresh starts in the 26th and 30th Wards say they are exploring a wide variety of ways to tackle the problem, everything from a greater police presence to addressing violence prevention in schools to providing more affordable housing.

Ald. Roberto Maldonado’s last-minute decision earlier this year not to seek reelection in the 26th Ward and Ald. Ariel Reboyras’s announcement in the 30th last year prompted the call for new ideas to address public safety and community investment, the issues that candidates in both wards say voters are most concerned about. Jessie Fuentes, Julian Perez and Angee Gonzalez Rodriguez are the three candidates on the ballot in the 26th Ward.

Jessica Gutierrez, JuanPablo Prieto, Ruth Cruz and Warren Williams — the four candidates competing in the 30th Ward — have promised to address voters’ concerns about crime and improving public schools.

Our Allison Novelo has more on the 26th and 30th Ward races here.

A bright one

Chicago Academy for the Arts receives ‘transformative’ gift from famous alum

For Justin Tranter, the Chicago Academy for the Arts is more than the place where they learned the skills that helped make them one of the most successful songwriters of the past decade.

It’s also the place, Tranter says, that saved their life. In 10 years, Tranter has gone from earning a salary just under the poverty line to a hugely successful career in the entertainment business, so much so that Tranter is donating $500,000 to their alma mater to support tuition and scholarships for students in need, it was announced Friday evening.

“It’s transformative,” said the academy’s Head of School Jason Patera of the gift from Tranter, who also sits on the school’s board of trustees.

“As an independent school, a lot of people think it’s full of rich kids, but that’s not the case at all,” Patera said. “Our students come from all over, from all kinds of backgrounds, and we award a staggering amount of tuition assistance every year.”

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Justin Tranter, songwriter for the Paramount+ television series “Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies.”

Willy Sanjuan/AP

The private school, at 1010 W. Chicago Ave., provides general academics as well as specialized arts training for 120 students in grades 9 through 12, more than half who need financial assistance to afford the school’s base tuition of $33,175 a year, Patera said.

Tranter, a 1998 graduate of the school, said that, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, it was especially important to enable the school to keep operating without worry that many of its students couldn’t afford the tuition. Tranter, who grew up in Lake Zurich, said the school not only taught them the skills that would enable them to work with some of the biggest stars in music — among them Gwen Stefani, Ariana Grande, Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber, Cardi B and Imagine Dragons — but also kept them safe and free from the bullying they faced during one semester at a previous high school, where the bullying “got very physical.”

After that, Tranter’s parents allowed them to audition to attend the Chicago Academy for the Arts where they were accepted, protected and nurtured, Tranter said.

“I was able to go to this beautiful, diverse environment where teachers were openly queer, and students were transitioning, and there was a lot more racial diversity,” Tranter said. “It’s a safe place from bullying, but also art makes you a better person.”

Bob Chiarito has more with Tranter here.

From the press box

Your daily question☕

How did you meet the love of your life?

Send us an email at newsletters@suntimes.com and we might feature your answer in the next Afternoon Edition.

Yesterday we asked you: What are your Valentine’s Day plans?

Here’s what some of you said...

“My boyfriend and I are seeing Dita Von Teese at the Chicago Theatre.” — Jessica Oakes

“My husband and I rarely do anything ‘special.’ Having a home-cooked meal together is still a joy for us.” — Francine Lathrop

“Having no significant other at the moment, I will take a page from the playbook of Parks and Recreation character Leslie Knope and celebrate ‘Galentine’s Day,’ with some of my posse.” — Kathy Posner

“Movie and dinner out with my husband of 22 years. I was widowed at age 39 and had 2 small children. He came into my life nine years later and he’s been a great step-father and husband.” — Rhonda Rowe-Skolnik

“Exercise classes.” — Barbara Lis

“Celebrating my birthday one day late on Valentine’s Day, with my sister, niece and her two kids! We’re having steak and lobster.” — Donna Schraeder

“Nothing. It’s a Hallmark holiday. If you love your significant other, you should be showing/telling them every day. Not just the one day a year like so many people do.” — Chris Bowden

“Going to go early vote!” — Sami Murphy

“I have jury duty so hoping to find my true love at 26th and California.” — Vicki Rodriguez

Thanks for reading the Chicago Sun-Times Afternoon Edition. Got a story you think we missed? Email us here.

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